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Preach on: Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band.

National Treasures

 

By Mike Hotter

Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, June 19

While Pete Seeger deserves all the respect in the world, his music generally has been as rhythmically stiff as a starched collar. While paying tribute to Seeger’s impeccable musicology and righteous sense of social justice this past Monday, Springsteen’s Sessions Band injected 200 years’ worth of American music history with all the bluesy passion, sweat and way-back-yonder funk they could muster. Kicking off with the archetypal “John Henry,” the Boss took the stage with high energy, kicking, swirling and exhorting both his musicians and the audience to take the music up higher while banging out a train rhythm on his acoustic guitar. The deep bass and high twang of “O Mary Don’t You Weep” transformed the SPAC amphitheatre into the site of a prophecy, while the sing-along hoedown of “Old Dan Tucker” had the mostly middle-aged crowd ready to go and raise a barn.

Selections of Springsteen originals also were given the Seeger Band treatment. “Adam Raised a Cain” featured a particularly smoking duet between violinists Sam Bardfeld and Soozie Tyrell. “Open All Night” and “You Can Look (But You’d Better Not Touch)” rocked with an abandon that conjured up Elvis in his prime. A reworked “Johnny 99,” from 1982’s Nebraska (a blueprint for Americana troubadours), made sure the funk of James Brown also was acknowledged in the roots revue.

While it’s a rare pleasure to see Springsteen in all his charismatic, ass-kicking glory, each of the 16 band members exhibited enough personality and skill to endear themselves to the crowd as well. Along with the violinists, who took up the sonic space an electric lead guitar usually would in a rock band, standouts included the great banjo plucking of Greg Liszt (who looks like a backwoods geek but has a Ph.D. from MIT), the ethereal pedal steel of Marty Rifkin, and the scene-stealing four-piece horn section. The bureaucratic bungling in the wake of Katrina was often alluded to by Springsteen in both song and statement, but it was the joyous N’Awlins polyphony of Ed Manion’s sax, “La Bamba” Rosenberg’s trombone, and (especially) Mark Pender’s trumpet and Art Baron’s tuba that spoke most fiercely and eloquently about the treasure we almost lost down in Louisiana.

Springsteen was assisted on vocals by Tyrell, Cindy Mizell, Marc Anthony Thompson (aka the perennially underrated Chocolate Genius), Curtis King and Lisa Lowell. Interspersed among the barnburners were the true jewels of the evening, simmering gospel versions of immortal classics like “Eyes on the Prize,” “We Shall Overcome” and “When the Saints Come Marching In.” You couldn’t help but get misty while black and white men and women joined voices and hands, becoming living examples of peace and the promise America can still hold. As this joyful show neared its end, Springsteen said, “Next time, I’m just gonna put up a tent—play anywhere!” Just raise it, Bruce—we’ll be sure to join you.

Take Dave

Freihofer’s Jazz Fest

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, June 26

On Sunday, the second day of the Freihofer’s Jazz Festival at SPAC, it was clear that the event was as much about atmosphere and spirit as it was about music. The sloping lawn seemed like an expansive, sandless, oceanless beach dotted with bright-toned umbrellas.

The event also had a sense of controlled benevolence, with three generations of listeners commingling throughout the SPAC grounds. And, without getting all “Kumbaya” about it, it was hard not to notice as well the intermingling of races and backgrounds—jazz has always seemed to knock down those walls.

But oftentimes it seemed as if the music (on the main stage and the smaller gazebo stage) didn’t demand your attention—it was there, omnipresent, when you wanted it, much of it great. One artist who did pull a lot of eyes and ears in his direction was the timeless Dave Brubeck and his quartet. Brubeck, now 85, has evolved to the point of cultural institution, and even typically reserved peers and critics speak of Brubeck’s brilliance.

Brubeck—in a crisp, light-colored suit and looking a tad feeble during his entry stroll—had a peculiar way of settling into repose at the piano: He seemed to almost recline in his seat at times, arms at his side when not playing, as if everything was sort of sweeping over him (or as if he was surrendering himself to absorption). Then he would casually lift his hands to the keys and those deft, unusual rhythms would flutter effortlessly forth. Nothing about Brubeck sounds old—he only wears the time on his frame.

The quartet had a powerful delicacy to them that simply stole the day away from the other performers. The bottom-heavy amplification of some of the bill sharers couldn’t shore up to the breezy complexity of Brubeck and co., whose grace and interplay were from a whole other stratosphere. The quartet opened up with “Stormy Weather,” pushing nimbly through a bunch of standards, including the best and brightest take on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that many audience members had ever heard.

Alto saxophonist Bobby Militello drew frequent roars of appreciation, filling the big shoes of long-deceased Brubeck collaborator Paul Desmond, while drummer Randy Jones’ splashy, mind-defying rhythms drove the four like a Porsche engine. Late in the set, the group, now worked into a lather, pulled out their ace, the legendary “Take Five,” first released in 1959 (and written by Desmond).

It’s one of those numbers that’s in the collective DNA of American music, yet the group seemed constantly on the brink of discovery with it, exploring regions of improvisation and yielding up new ground amidst the driving, familiar 5/4 chug. Militello wove and burned his way through some stunning solo spotlights.

Though it was only late afternoon, Brubeck and band simply tipped the balance on the day; there were many great acts on hand, but Brubeck was in his own class.

Other notable performances included (so much music, so few words allotted), singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi (who appeared before Brubeck), romping through a tight set of soulful blues-rock. She and her band of ringers rolled out a set of covers and originals that set her atop her idiom—that is, if one has a taste for the slick, modernist, baby-boomer blues regions in which she dwells. (And last I heard, Bonnie Raitt hadn’t left a void that needed to be filled.)

After Brubeck, Stanley Clarke and George Duke put on a set that explored the interstellar, postmodern reaches of jazz, laying down some fusion, funk, and tradition within the confines of their set.

Sixty-eight-year-old Etta James, one of the legendary belters of R&B, capped off the day by showing she is still at the top of her game. Her dramatic bombast and sheer power ended the fest on a high note, as she romped through such classics as “At Last” and the high point of Al Green’s “Love and Happiness.” Like Brubeck, her vitality defied the encroaching decades. But it was Dave Brubeck’s day; it’s no small wonder that he received a round of “Happy Birthday” and standing ovation (despite turning 85 in December) before he even played a note. As fan Bill Cosby pointed out earlier this year, we can’t expect our geniuses to dwell among us forever.

—Erik Hage


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